It’s fair to say that one of the worst meals of my life happened in Scotland. I had been invited to a venerable gentlemen’s club for a Scotch-pairing dinner and was excited to taste some of the great Gaelic delicacies alongside vintage whisky. The trouble started with the first course: a sour and acidic pea soup the texture of cat’s tongue. It only went downhill from there. By the time we got to the miniature “haggis balls” – uncannily testicular in size, shape and appearance – it was clear that there wasn’t enough whisky in all of Scotland to make the dinner bearable.
Sadly, it wasn’t the only heinous meal I experienced on that trip. There was the Cullen skink (a type of fish soup) that tasted the way hot garbage smells, a gelatinous and despondent stovie (beef stew) and, of course, plate after plate of subpar haggis. I don’t remember a single green vegetable.
There were, however, bright spots, such as plump, salty-sweet langoustines of impeccable freshness, island of Colonsay rock oysters that balanced fresh minerality with a saline tang, North Ronaldsay lamb that tasted faintly of the seaweed it grazed upon and lean, impossibly flavourful venison.
Quality ingredients have never been Scotland’s problem, and at the high end of the dining scene the country fares well, boasting 15 Michelin-starred establishments – impressive for a country of just over five million people. Up until recently, the problem was that everything else in between was more or less abysmal, but that’s starting to change.
Today, spurred by the country’s success at the top end, the rise of the New Nordic Cuisine (which exalts local seasonal ingredients) and the culinary revolution that has made London one of the world’s great food capitals, Scotland is undergoing its own culinary renaissance.
Much of the excitement in Scottish cooking right now is happening in and around the capital of Edinburgh. Restaurants such as Cafe St Honoré (cafesthonore.com), located in the heart of the city, are baking fresh bread in-house, butchering whole animals, working closely with local hunters and foragers and even growing their own vegetables. Its chef, Neil Forbes, translates Scottish ingredients through French techniques. He might serve locally smoked trout and “organic Highland crowdie” (a type of soft cheese made, despite its name, in the Scottish Lowlands) with toasted oats or pair Scotch beef with creamy dauphinoise potatoes and local chanterelles.
Young chefs like Ben Radford, the 28-year-old who presides over the kitchen at Timberyard (timberyard.co), a rambling former warehouse with several dining rooms and its own garden, are no longer heading to London, Paris or Copenhagen to make their names. A second-generation restaurateur, Radford and his whole family are involved in the restaurant. Growing up around professional kitchens gave the chef a front-row seat on the local food scene, and he’s watched it change dramatically. “Edinburgh is quite a traditional city,” he says. “Michelin has always been a big part of the dining scene and a lot of restaurants aspire to that. As a result, there weren’t a lot of people trying to push the boundaries, but, more and more, that’s starting to happen. There’s all these new edgy, slightly rock ‘n’ roll restaurants.”
One of the most celebrated of them is the Gardener’s Cottage (thegardenerscottage.co), located in a charming, domestic building dating to the mid-19th century that was once exactly what its name suggests. Business partners and co-chefs Edward Murray and Dale Mailley serve set six- and seven-course meals to diners who sit at communal tables, a radical innovation for Edinburgh.
Menus change daily depending on what’s freshest and might include charcoalroasted lamb served with savoury chanterelles and big, crisp spinach leaves, smoked ham hock with soft-boiled egg and lava salt or partridge with baked turnip, artichoke and gnocchi.
Murray, who originally trained as an architect before turning to cooking, is optimistic about food in Scotland these days. “There’s a lot more places that I want to eat at now,” he says. “There’s less emphasis on fine dining than there was five years ago. It feels much more relaxed, more midfield.”
There is no greater symbol of this change than the Honours (thehonours.co.uk), a year-old restaurant from one of Scotland’s most celebrated chefs, Martin Wishart. It was Wishart who gave Edinburgh its first Michelin star back in 2001 with his first solo venture, Restaurant Martin Wishart. “Edinburgh is fairly diverse in its dining offerings,” Wishart says, “but I did see quite a big gap in the market for something with a large, diverse menu done with pricing that’s affordable but reflects the quality of the ingredients we use in the dishes. That’s the basis of The Honours. The idea is, if you want to have one course, do it; if you want to have four courses, do that. We want it to be somewhere you want to go once or twice a month” – not simply on special occasions.
Instead of the elaborate, complex tasting menus that Wishart established his reputation with, the menu at the Honours offers grass-fed, 28-to-36-day-dry-aged Scotch beef grilled over charcoal and finished with a madeira glaze, line-caught halibut with braised endive, glazed pig’s trotters with warm sauce gribiche and fresh Cornish Assured Oysters from what is known as the most sustainable oyster fisheries in the world.
“There has always been a lot of very natural, deeply flavourful ingredients here,” Wishart says, “but the biggest change for me as a chef is there’s now a greater range of products available, the delivery of them has improved and the suppliers are a lot more knowledgeable.” That can only mean better eating for everyone, even the codgers at the stuffy old clubs.